A Conversation with Michael Sheridan of Community Supported Film
by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz of NAMAC
There was a buzz at the NAMAC 2012 conference. In the halls, over dinner, hushed voices asked, “Did you see the films from Afghanistan”? A few months later, sipping coffee with former NAMAC ED, Helen de Michiel, I heard it again: “Did you see those films from Afghanistan?”
The films in question belong to a collection of ten short documentaries, The Fruit of Our Labor, produced in a 5-week intensive training held in Kabul, Afghanistan and conducted by Boston-based nonprofit, Community Supported Film (CSFilm).
CSFilm’s mission is multi-faceted. It begins with training storytellers in various countries and communities to tell character-based, lived experience stories that focus on socioeconomic development. The films are not what we’re accustomed to seeing in advocacy pieces. They reveal important social issues, yes, but they are told with a keen eye for the delicate language of film. They stand on their own as stories well told, not agendas.
The finished projects are shared with domestic and international audiences in an effort to engage the public, promote awareness, and affect policy decisions.
CSFilm started only a few years ago. Founder and Executive Director Michael Sheridan had gone to Afghanistan to conduct research for a documentary film comparing local, economic development initiatives with international, militarized, development initiatives. Michael recalls:
Having worked as a filmmaker and in advocacy and policy around these issues for many years, I saw that people like me were being hired over and over again by news and nonprofit organizations to go and tell the stories of other communities.
To a certain degree, the way we learn about other people’s worlds is really through our own eyes. What wasn’t happening was the telling of stories from the local perspective and from the wealth of knowledge that exists around social and economic development processes from that perspective. And until you get a conversation going that looks at the problem from the local perspective, you’re not going to get a lot of local cooperation from that local community in your peace-building or nation-building efforts.
So it became an interest of mine to figure out how to implement a program that effectively used the local knowledge, in both development and storytelling, to create compelling stories that could be used locally and internationally to help people in the international community understand what’s going on.
My model is to combine these things: the bottom-up model of development and social change, with the bottom-up approach to storytelling, so that the local voices are coming through in all ways and influencing both the policy and the storytelling.
To develop and implement such a program, Michael relied on 15 years of experience as an educator, a long career as a documentary filmmaker working on issues of economic development and poverty alleviation, and local partners in Afghanistan. Through a partnership with the Killid Media Group, Michael’s emerging training program was able to outreach to a diverse range of Afghan nationals. From a pool of 80 applicants, 10 strong candidates were selected for this first training by Community Supported Film. This ethnically diverse group would work together for up to ten hours per day, six days a week, for five weeks, to learn the skills required to make character-driven, scene-based, lived experience documentaries.
The filmmakers were chosen after a rigorous application process that gauged their story-telling fluencies, their commitment to social and economic development, and their plans for employing the training towards nurturing their professional growth. In addition, the candidates had to be willing to forego traditional ethnic and gender divisions, and learn to work closely with people from a range of backgrounds.
I was aware of these tensions in terms of how we divided the participants up into [production] teams. It also became a real advantage for the men to work with women, because it allowed for scenes to be filmed that otherwise couldn’t have been due to the inability of a man to film within a home where women are.
The teams became so involved in all of those issues and so aware of them that they were taking advantage of this opportunity to cross ethnic grounds and to work with women’s issue – so much so that to my great surprise, while I had hoped to have one woman involved and hoped that she would do a story on women’s issues, we ended up with seven stories that featured women as their primary characters. Three of these films were made by men…